Student safety: its impact on recruitment and study abroad choices

ICEF Monitor looks at the issue of student safety in a two-part article. The first discusses the perceived increase in physical danger on school campuses for international students, how those dangers impact international student mobility, and how recruiters might ease student concerns.

The second installment discusses online safety, and what measures colleges, universities, and language schools can take to provide a safe environment both on campuses and online.

Safety increasing in importance when selecting a study destination

Studying abroad in an unfamiliar culture has always brought with it a set of potential safety risks, but recent years have seen a heightened awareness of campus safety issues among potential international students, as well as their parents.

According to a study conducted by the British Council and the online student forum The Student Room entitled “Student Insight Hot Topics: The Rise in Global Student Safety Concerns“, campus safety ranks at number five in importance out of 19 factors affecting a potential student’s choice of study destination. Safety ranked 17 of 19 only five years ago.

Student attacks in the media

The concerns of international students and their parents are not unfounded. The number of reported attacks against students has in fact increased in recent years (as has the number of students abroad), and crime statistics show that international students are among the most vulnerable on campus.

As the report highlights:

“The nature of international student communities – their temporary status and relative lack of familiarity with their new environment, culture, and in many cases, language – leaves them exposed to a large number of risks.”

Some of the incidents involving international students have reached the level of political crises in various countries around the globe. In Australia, 152 reported attacks on Indian students in 2009 (23 of the attacks were deemed to have racial overtones) were widely reported in both the global press circuits, leading to demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne.

And in April 2012 in Jalandhar, India, an attack by a group of Indian men against a student from Burundi left the victim in a coma. This case, too, became an international incident, with Indian police being accused of corruption, the government being accused of callousness, and African students wondering if India is a safe place to study.

Physical battery is only one type of safety concern, and ethnicity only one factor. In the US, for example, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that nearly 82% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students reported experiencing harassment at school in the previous year because of their sexual orientation.

But the majority of crime victims, whether international students or locals, are not targeted for any reason other than their presence in a certain place at a certain moment, or the perception by criminals that foreigners are soft targets. These random crimes can be just as dangerous as targeted crimes, and more difficult for students to avoid and law enforcement to deter.

How to ease student concerns

First, it’s essential to be aware of what worries students. Respondents to the Student Insight survey cited numerous safety concerns, which varied from country to country, and included the following: distance from family and friends, the potential for human rights violations, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, the threat of terrorist attacks, the prevalence of street crime, and the availability of guns.

As a recruitment agent counseling parents and students on destinations and schools, it’s also important to have a broad grasp of crime trends on individual campuses. Asking educational partners to provide facts and figures is a good start, especially since gathering statistics on the subject isn’t uniform, and can be misleading. Use respected sources, but realise that a potential student might not have done the same.

For example, a web search using the term “campus crime rankings 2012” brings up The Daily Beast, an American website that has been slammed for its shoddy methodology, yet whose convincingly debunked conclusions have been echoed far and wide in mainstream media.

In the US, accurate crime statistics are easy to obtain thanks to the Clery Act, a law that requires all colleges and universities participating in financial aid programmes to disclose categorised data about crime on or near campus. The statute also requires institutions to make note of hate crimes.

In Britain, similar information resides in The Complete University Guide, which annually publishes data on the level of crimes likely to be of relevance to students – burglaries, muggings and violence – as well as tips for how to stay safe on campus.

And in Australia, it might alleviate concerns if students and parents are aware that the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Helen Szoke, recently released the Commission’s “Principles to promote and protect the human rights of international students” which Szoke says “will ensure safe, positive and productive stays for international students, who come to Australia to study.”

But simply acknowledging the existence of crime probably isn’t a winning strategy for enticing international students. Being able to point to a strong expatriate community from the potential student’s home country can ease fears. Students from the same country and culture help to make a foreign environment more navigable in general, including areas related to safety.

And as reported in the Student Insight survey, multiculturalism in a potential destination can also ease foreign students’ worries. Respondents voted Britain as the best country in which to study, and its multiculturalism was cited as the number one reason. If students perceive the destination as accepting of other cultures and lifestyles, they tend to feel they can function in the society without coming under undue scrutiny from local inhabitants.

Lastly, recruiters working for institutions in safe destinations should stress that those destinations remain safe, even if a highly publicised one-off crime might have occurred there. The factors that lead to a single crime are often not known or unique to that particular event, and a high-profile incident does not change the fact that a certain community or country as a whole may be among the safest in the world. Given the rise of safety as an influencing factor on students’ choice of where to study overseas, highlighting safety figures in marketing and recruitment efforts would be an effective strategy.

The effect of safety concerns on international student mobility

While potential international students are more concerned than ever about safety on campus, when choosing a school this factor still ranks below four others:

  • quality of education;
  • internationally recognised qualifications;
  • career prospects;
  • university reputation.

Countries that score highly in the top four categories will continue attracting students, however, there is a tipping point where safety begins to override all other benefits. Figures from the Australian government’s International Education Agency reveal that higher education enrolments of Indian students fell from 27,500 three years ago to fewer than 12,000 by August 2012.

And in more general terms, the total number of Indian students enrolled in Australian colleges and universities fell over the past three years from 121,000 in 2009 to 48,000 by August 2012. The estimated cost to the Aussie economy is more than AUS $2 billion, according to a recent article on theage.com.au.

“Even if I wanted to go to Australia, and I got the course I wanted, there is no way I could convince my mum and dad,” an Indian student recently told British Council researchers in Delhi. This statement alone perhaps shows that safety is a concern not just for students, but also for everyone involved in international education.

How to maintain a secure environment – part two

The second installment of this piece examines how the Internet also presents dangers to students, and how those dangers can lead to both physical danger and emotional dangers of the sort resulting from cyber stalking and cyber bullying.

We also discuss what precautions students can take online, and finally, we look at what colleges, universities, and language schools can do to maintain safe environments.



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